By Cam Huffman
When West Virginia University’s offense took the field for the first time with 12:32 remaining in the opening quarter Saturday, something just didn’t look right.
All the right guys were there — Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, Shawne Alston, Stedman Bailey —and, as Marshall soon learned, so were the long runs, bullet passes and broken tackles.
The wrinkle was where Smith, the quarterback, was lined up. Instead of standing straight up a few yards behind center Joey Madsen, Smith was leaning down, directly behind his center with three running backs set behind him.
For most, the conventional snap wouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary. But for a Dana Holgorsen offense, it was almost revolutionary.
Smith could count the number of times he lined up under center in 2011 on one hand, and he’d probably have enough digits left to throw a touchdown pass or two. Even when WVU was taking a knee to run out the clock last year, Smith was taking the snap from the shotgun.
So why the new look?
Offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson explained that it actually has more to do with the Mountaineer running backs than it does the quarterback.
“It helps with their vision, and it helps us with our play-action,” said Dawson. “We feel like it can help our running game by putting that power set in and pounding it at our opponent a little bit.”
“We get the ball a little bit later when he’s under center,” added Alston. “That allows us to access our vision a little better, and the linemen can move different places than when they’re in the shotgun.”
But it wasn’t running backs coach Robert Gillespie who pushed for the change.
“You guys have been complaining and begging for it, so now you’ve got it,” he joked before adding that it does add another aspect that an opposing defense has to game plan against. “In year one, we didn’t know how much Geno could put on his plate. But you can put all you want on Geno, and it’s something he’s comfortable with because he’s done it before. It was Dana (Holgorsen’s) decision.”
For Smith, the adjustment came easily. He spent a large portion of his high school career and much of his first two seasons under the Bill Stewart regime taking the snaps from center.
“It’s the same package; the only difference is that I can run the quarterback sneak,” said Smith. “But I’ve done it my whole life. Joey’s been my center the whole time (at WVU) and we’ve never missed a snap in any kind of weather.”
WVU honored former head coaches Jim Carlen and Stewart prior to the start of Saturday’s game. The video highlights of Stewart’s pregame speech prior to the 2012 Fiesta Bowl drew a standing ovation from the late-arriving crowd, about 15 minutes before game time.
Stewart’s family has continued to receive well-wishes from friends and coaches around the country. Friday night, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was in Morgantown to watch Stewart’s son Blaine, a senior at Morgantown High School, play football. The young Stewart caught a touchdown pass with the coach, who got his first coaching job as a Stewart assistant at VMI, watching.
Another special moment in Saturday’s game occurred early in the first quarter when WVU paid tribute to fallen state troopers Marshall Bailey and Eric Workman. A line of green-clad troopers stretched from one pylon to the other across the goal line as they stood in honor of their fallen colleague.
Smith’s 32 completions put him at No. 1 on the all-time completions list, passing Marc Bulger. He passed the Mountaineer legend with his 13-yard completion to J.D. Woods in the second quarter.
But Smith, who now has 648 completions as a Mountaineer, wasn’t boasting about passing a former NFL Pro Bowler.
“I’m honored and glad I was able to put up some good numbers,” he said. “But we’ve still got a lot more to go.”
With the end of the series, especially one that has a major sponsor, come a number of questions. What happens to the signage used to promote the game? Where does the trophy find its final resting place? What becomes of the T-shirts and hats?
All of these questions were being discussed by Friends of Coal officials in the media room following the game. Holgorsen said he’d be happy to find a permanent place for the trophy, but he wasn’t willing to discuss his thoughts on an eventual renewal of the series.
“I don’t get involved with things like that,” he said. “That’s why we have great administrators who will make the right decisions about what’s best for our university.”
The action between the two clubs actually started before the opening kickoff, as the teams engaged in some verbal jousting — and a little bumping — on the field during pregame.
“That’s just a rivalry game. There was nothing after the game, so there’s no bad blood,” said Smith, downplaying the incident. “Before the game, everybody’s emotions are running, and the adrenaline gets pumped up. That’s the great thing about college football. You get those rivalries.”
Smith was one of the first guys into the mix, something he said speaks to his role as a leader.
“When you see your quarterback getting in there, I think guys respect that,” he said.